Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL

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By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Next to Normal is, for lack of a better term, a musical tragedy.  With its beautifully sung score telling a painful and upsetting story, it challenges conventional expectations of what big Broadway musicals are likely to be.

The fine production at the Arden Theater, directed by Terrence J. Nolen, begins with the huge close up of a face projected onto the upstage wall (the many stunning and disturbing images were created by Jorge Cousineau). Eyes fly open and we are at once looking and being looked at.  The spare set—everything is square or stripes—turns out to be the Goodman family’s suburban home.

 Diana, the mother (Kristine Fraelich), is bipolar: self-destructive, hallucinating, unable to deal with life’s simplest responsibilities. The lyrics ask the central question: Who’s crazy? The one who hopes--her relentlessly devoted husband Dan (James Barry) ?or the one who can’t cope. After years of psychopharmaceutical failures, the psychiatrist (Brian Hissong) suggests electric shock therapy.  

 The teenage daughter Natalie (Rachel Camp) is the family’s collateral damage: she is invisible to her  parents, despite her perfect grades, her Mozart recitals, her free ride at Yale. Her brother (Robert Hager) haunts the family: seductive, charming, predatory. The only redeeming sweetness is Henry (Michael Doherty), Natalie’s boyfriend.

Some of what is so exhausting about watching the show is the intensity of everyone’s pain and worry and helplessness: it is almost unrelieved misery until the conclusion, when the whole cast gathers to sing an affirmation—not of  the possibility of happiness but only of the courage to face the future and survive. 

The music, by Tom Kitt (under Eric  Ebbenga’s direction) is exciting, and the lyrics, by Brian Yorkey,  are sometimes clever, sometimes mournful; Yorkey’s dialogue seems absolutely authentic and plausible, delivered by actors/singers who make their characters interesting as well as heartbreaking. There are no villains here, just bad luck.

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Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd St. Through Nov.4. Tickets $36-48. Information:  215.922.1122, or www.ardentheatre.org

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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